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Dudley Edwards

50 Years of Socialist Struggle

(July 1975)


From Left, Vol. 6 No. 5, July/August 1975 p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).



Dudley Edwards, a retired member of the AUEW (ENG) writes the first of two articles on the Inter-war and post-war struggles of the Labour Movement.

“The coming hope the future day,
When wrong to right shall bow,
And hearts that have the courage man
To make the future NOW”

These words of the Chartist leader, Ernest Jones, written nearly 150 years ago, kept coming to my mind when I attended the conference and rally of the Labour Party Young Socialists in April.

The spirit and the clarity of mind of the 2,000 young people I saw at this conference convinced me that, despite all setbacks, I have lived to see the preliminary stages of the Great Social Revolution which Ernest Jones and his Chartist comrades visualized only dimly “as through a glass darkly”.

In those fifty years of working class struggle which I have taken part in, many have fallen by the wayside, thousands had their hearts broken by the faint-hearted opportunism of Labour leaders. At certain periods during those years the foundations of a socialist society could have been established. It has been these leaders who have blocked the instinctive will of the masses of the workers to change society.

At least four times during my life time, it would have been possible to remove the capitalist anarchy of production, which today is again leading to economic crisis; a crisis which, as in the past, the working class will be made to pay for, unless it puts an end to the capitalist system.

Today again the inner contradiction of capitalism threatens to plunge the working class into mass unemployment, starvation, low wages, hyper-inflation. Even more; if this decadent system is allowed to persist for a long period, it will lead to some form of fascism in one or toehr of the major industrial countries and to the ultimate holocaust of a nuclear war.
 

Clause 4

In 1918, for the first time a really socialist clause was introduced into the Labour Party; Clause 4 – “the common ownership of the means of production and distribution” etc.

The inclusion of this clear-cut socialist objective resulted from the tremendous impact of the first successful working-class revolution in history, the October Revolution in Russia in 1917.

After four years of war, during which most Labour and Trade Union leaders became recruiting sergeants urging their members to slaughter their fellow workers on the other side of the national frontier, the Russian revolution came like a sudden clap of thunder. Though a very small lad, I can vaguely recall the atmosphere of hope this event created among the working people.

The Clause 4, which Arthur Henderson then introduced into the Constitution, could have been put into immediate operation during those days. All over Europe enormous demonstrations, strikes and mutinies of war-weary soldiers were taking place. Had the Labour leaders possessed real faith in the working class from which they had sprung, capitalism could have been swept away then. Unfortunately too many of them had become reconciled to being what Lenin called “the Labour lieutenants of capitalism within the ranks of the working class”.

Their excuse for being unwilling to lead the workers to a revolutionary overthrow of the system which had caused the war was that they wanted to go “the gradual and peaceful way”. Yet, if we take a ‘bird’s eye view’ of those years from the first to the second World War, we see only a period of unending violence, colonial and civil wars, culminating in fascist terror and another mass slaughter. Had the revolutionary lead of the Bolsheviks in 1917 been followed by Labour in Western Europe, then none of these things could have happened. German fascism would never have been able to start its war. It would never have existed.
 

Stalinism

The Stalinist political distortion workers’ state would not have been possible, because a European Federation of Socialist States would have been able to permanently raise production to unimagined heights. This production organized on socialist lines, would have been directed only towards meeting the needs of all the labouring populations, including that of Russia. No periodical suspension of production would have occurred, when big business was not satisfied that enough profit was being made out of the exploitation of the workers’ labour power. This main cause of capitalist crises, including the present one, would have therefore been eliminated.

As a stripling, I saw the enormous response of the British working class to the T.U.C. strike call in 1926. Once again the working class was defeated, not by its capitalist bosses, but by the defeatism of its own leaders. A courageous leadership with faith in the ability of our class to fundamentally change society could also in those days have led the movement to victory. All that was lacking was the will at the top. On the day that this great act of solidarity was called off, the strike was stronger in spirit and numbers than when it began nine days before.

It was during this period that I became a conscious, if confused, socialist. Before the General Strike I was nearly recruited into the infamous O.M.S. (Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies). This body was cunningly built up by the authorities long before the strike, for the apparently innocent purpose of “helping the country in an emergency”. It was only when I saw the “gilded” youth coming down to Southampton Docks from Oxford and Cambridge to form an army of strike-breakers that I grasped the real class nature of the struggle.

It was the betrayal of this strike and the consequent victimization of thousands of workers which left the working class almost defenceless when in 1929 capitalism plunged the world into economic crisis. Then, as now, big business demand that the working class pay for the crisis which capitalism had created. The membership of the Trade Unions which in 1918 had nearly reached nine million (within a smaller population), by 1930 could barely muster five million members.

Despite this, the working class recovered its combative spirit fairly soon after the 1926 defeat and by 1929 had put a Labour Government into office. Then, as now, this Government was soon faced with this capitalist produced crisis. Being completely devoid of any firm socialist programme, it was therefore forced to apply the cuts in the workers’ standard of living, demanded by the international bankers and money-lenders.

This government did not have an overall majority, it is true, but had its leaders been willing to use their parliamentary position to mobilize the working class in their struggle against the cuts demanded by the ruling class, then the whole situation could have been changed and once again socialism could have been put on “the order of the day”.

The evidence in support of this claim was shown by the degree of spontaneous resistance which was put up by large sections of the working class. As a matter of fact it was the Labour leaders of the Cabinet who set up the notorious May Committee which recommended wholesale cuts in the wages and social benefits of the poorest sections of the unemployed, (by this time nearly three million) were singled out for attack.
 

Fight Back

However, not all these cuts could be imposed in their original severity, because, though almost leaderless, the workers soon began to fight back. The ruling class, supremely self-confident, was under the impression that once it had won over, by flattery and social bribery the most prominent Labour politicians, including Ramsey MacDonald, the Prime Minister and Philip Snowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, then everything would go smoothly. To the astonishment of the British Establishment and indeed the bosses all over the world, the first serious explosion came from the workers in uniform. The lowest ranks of the Atlantic fleet rose up as one man against the cuts in their pay. Until the Admiralty was prepared to negotiate over the cuts, almost all the lower ranks refused to put to sea.

This was the first widespread mutiny since the great “Mutiny of the Nore” at the end of the 18th century. Not an anchor was raised for our days, despite the frenzied efforts of the officers. During those days these “ordinary seamen” produced marvels of organization. This started from a huge mass meeting in the large naval canteen at Invergordon. Only when signals came from the Admiralty stating that the Government was willing to negotiate did a ship set sail. Eventually two thirds of the original cuts were restored.

During this period I was organizing ad hoc open air meetings at Portsmouth. The atmosphere was electric and many sailors attended. From these meetings developed an “Unemployed and Employed Workers Council” and a branch of the N.U.W.M. (National Unemployed Workers Movement) which took part in the huge unemployed demonstrations organized all over the country immediately after the Invergordon Mutiny.
 

No Lead

Of course without a fighting lead either from the Labour Party which had been thrown into confusion by the desertion of its Prime Minister, or from the Trade Union leaders, the workers were dragooned into acceptance of most of the cuts. Nevertheless, these mass actions did result in some of the cuts being restored and a modification of the means test which the new Tory dominated National Government had introduced.

By 1934 the worst effects of the capitalist slump began to subside and it is an irony of history that the victory of Hitler fascism in Germany was one reason for this partial recovery. Originally the British ruling class was sympathetic to the rise of the Nazis, while they restricted themselves to smashing the German Labour movement. However, when Hitler began to present a possible threat to British Imperialism, then the British Government began a re-armament programme. This was pressed forward as a precaution even although British diplomacy rested on the idea that Hitler’s military strategy could be diverted exclusively against the U.S.S.R.

The beginning of a new arms race, therefore, helped to bring about a fall in unemployment figures, though these never fell much below one and a half million until the outbreak of war in 1939. There will be thousands of working men and women of my generation who will not need to be told what this capitalist slump meant in terms of personal privation and hardships. However, a few examples will certainly interest the young readers of Left.

During the three worst years of this slump, various social and government institutions, including the British Medical Association, spent much time applying themselves to the question of “What was the absolute minimum expenditure required on food to keep one individual alive?” The Ministry of Health established that 5/1 or 26p would keep body and soul together. At this time the unemployment benefit for one person was 17/6, about 85p; a low rent, even in those days, was 15/– or 70p. This gives an idea of the semi-starvation existing among the unemployed.

My wife, who worked in a restaurant in Whitehall, together with other waitresses, would carefully wrap up pieces of left-over food from the plates of customers (among whom were Cabinet Ministers) and place these in the dustbins so that unemployed men could collect them at night. These were often not the traditional tramp types, but respectable working men who had taken to tramping the road looking for work.
 

Two Nations

Any miner of this generation could no doubt produce photographs of children going to work in the thinnest of plimsoll shoes during the depth of winter. These are only a few of the thousands of examples which could be quoted to illustrate what the capitalist slump meant to the average man or woman. At the same time, of course, our real rulers did not suffer at all. During the worst years of depression, all the most expensive West End night clubs were packed with society’s “Bright Young Things”. Meals with champagne even then generally cost £10 a time. Nightclub queens during the late twenties and early thirties were being fined thousands of pounds for infringing licensing laws, as in the case of the famous Mrs Merrick who was gaoled for bribing a high-ranking police officer to the tune of many thousands of pounds.

This is the real picture of the capitalist system, which some Labour leaders unfortunately worked day and night to save. Today this is often called “getting our priorities right”. When Denis Healey has to get up in Parliament to tell his Labour supporters that at least a million unemployed is almost inevitable by 1975 then it is time for the Labour Movement to say that the first priority should be the rapid dismantling of this rotten and decaying system and its replacement by a planned socialist economy under workers’ control and management. I believe this generation, especially those belonging to the L.P.Y.S. will succeed, despite all setbacks, in bringing about such a transformation of society.


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